All but two Jon Brion shows I've seen have required an act of rock tourism, but those trips down south haven't particularly taxed my resolve. Spending a couple of days in Oregon isn't a hardship either, except that for the first time in a while, my favorite travel buddies weren't able to join me. Still, with Jon Brion's live appearances growing ever rarer, I didn't need much prodding to head north.
Nickel Creek/Jon Brion, Roseland Theater, May 7, 2007: I love a good general admission venue, and the Roseland in Portland (not to be confused with the hell hole in Manhattan that shares its name) qualifies as such a spot. Though I underestimated the demand for this sold-out show, I managed to take my place just a few layers of people behind the barrier.
The big question for me about this tour: How would Jon's show go over in these bigger clubs, in front of people who aren't necessarily there to see him or aren't even familiar with him or his music? Would he do anything different to win over the crowd? Would the crowd give him a fighting chance? Was it disaster waiting to happen?
Sacramento, though lovely, wasn't a true test, but Roseland was just the kind of place that could be a challenge. Early on, it was clear that Largo's chatter-free rule wouldn't apply here, but Jon didn't seem too bothered as he unveiled his self-penned standards. Also, as you might expect in a typical rock'n'roll club, the "Freebird" request came out early, but Jon took it up anyway and turned it on its head with one of his steamrolling piano medleys. I didn't take notes at this part, but you can rest assured that Jon's musical landmarks all crept into the tour de force performance. That is, we got the Peanuts theme, a smidgen of "Rhapsody in Blue," and a million other points I can't wrap my head around.
With that dreaded rock cliche thoroughly dispatched, it was time to reprise the little trick he showed off in Chicago (and way before that in Los Angeles), in which he asked two audience members to join him onstage for "Stop the World." Blythe and Rick couldn't quite match the level of their Midwestern predecessors, but on the other hand, I think we're all in agreement that at least one of Jon's pianists at Steppenwolf was less than honest about his knowledge of the ivories. Nonetheless, it's almost impossible to mess up that song, and it reinforced Jon's commitment to his idea of a show, regardless of locale.
The next collaborators, in contrast, needed no guidance, as Sara and Sean Watkins took the vocals for one song each. Jon seemed a little surprised that their cameo was so brief, though they didn't go far, watching from the side of the stage. That left Jon in the solo spotlight for a couple of tunes before, like clockwork, Chris Thile dropped in for the final two songs of Jon's opening set. By the way, "Croatia" and the nameless instrumental from Sacramento are one and the same, which I didn't find out until the Eugene show, but that report will come in due time.
Following the same model as the night before, Nickel Creek played most of their set without Jon, but he signed on for a couple of passages. His bravura work on "Just" inspired Chris to request a replay of the ragtime bridge for everyone to hear. Over Jon's solo, Chris sang in an Al Jolson-like tone; I'm not sure I watched it the same way the Nickel Creek fans did, but the final result was the same: satisfaction all around.
In a change from the Sacto show, Jon joined Nickel Creek around the old-fashioned microphone for "Anthony." Actually, I think he required some prodding from Chris, but there he was, not only playing the notes and contributing harmonies, but swooping in and out in time with the rest of the crew. It made an already charming song irresistible.
Once more, they ended with "Run for Your Life," before taking a group bow to close the night.
Jon Brion's opening set
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--Stop the World [with Rick and Blythe from the audience on piano and celeste]
--Same Mistakes *
--Write Myself a Letter *
--Knock Yourself Out
--Trial and Error
accompanying Nickel Creek [main set]
--Jealous of the Moon
--Just ragtime bridge reprise + Chris's old-timey singing
accompanying Nickel Creek [encore]
--Run for Your Life
* = with Sara and Sean Watkins
** = with Chris Thile
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